Federal appellate judges skeptical of FCC’s net neutrality reasoning

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Network neutrality advocates faced off against the Federal Communications Commission and its telecoms industry partners in a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. on Friday. For more than four hours, a panel of three federal judges grilled both sides as they considered whether the FCC acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when it rolled back net neutrality rules in 2017.

The central question is whether broadband service is a simple telecommunications service – like phone service – or a value-added information service. FCC lawyer Tom Johnson insisted that the traffic management and routing technology that enables communication via the Internet – the domain name system and caching – is fundamentally different from the traffic management and routing technology that makes it possible to dial a phone number.

Judge Patricia Millett didn’t seem to buying that argument…

Millett: They both have the capability, the capability of acquiring information, receiving information, through a telephone as much as…

Johnson: Under the broader theory that these are broad statutory provisions in which we are able to make different classification decisions based on the fact that we’re talking about different services here.

Millett: That’s what I’m trying to figure out, are you talking about different capabilities between phones and if someone uses Facetime?

Johnson: Yes, your honor, we just don’t think that phone service in offering a pure transmission pathway for ordinary voice communication offers the same dynamic experience that broadband does in accessing the Internet, but in addition it also offers…

Millett: I hear you saying those words, I’m really trying to make sure I’m understanding what the difference is, because people use telephones to acquire all kinds of information…If I want to get information from my pharmacy – I’d like to have something refilled – I can call over the phone and push a bunch of buttons and eventually I’ll have a prescription refilled. I can also go on the website and type in and tell the doctor’s office I’d like a prescription refilled. But it seems to be the exact same functionality. One is voice and one is typing, but that can’t be difference.

Johnson never directly answered Millett’s question. His defence was that there was sufficient ambiguity in federal law to create an opening for the FCC to exercise its discretion as the federal government’s expert agency in these matters. Typically, federal courts defer to that – they don’t consider whether an expert agency made the best decision, but rather whether the decision reached was one of many possible and reasonable interpretations of the facts and the law.

The plain fact is that broadband is a telecommunications service. People use it to transmit and receive information between two point without changes. The give and take at Friday’s hearing indicates that the three judges understand that point well.

Listen to the hearing here.